Twyla Tharp conducted her lecture at USC’s Bing Theatre Oct. 13 a little like a therapy session. She was speaking about “creative skills,” drawing upon her 2003 book The Creative Mind. These skills are rather like self-help exercises, except Tharp drew upon the works of such great artists as Mozart, Shakespeare and David Byrne, not such great psychiatric thinkers as Freud, Reich, or Jung.
I find that when I’m having creative failure (aka writers’ block, and when I say writers’ block, I mean sinking into that abyss where I wonder who am I fooling thinking I can write and start combing the help wanted ads for a “real” job, any job), I often get inspiration by revisiting the work of a favorite inspiration. When Tharp is stuck, she reads Shakespeare sonnets so she can be assured that “someone once knew where they were going.” Choreographing the Milos Forman movie Amadeus, she was endlessly inspired by Mozart’s genius and work habits. He wrote “clean scores,” she marveled — that’s the 18th century equivalent of recording a hit song in one take.
Tharp herself is a bit of a great artist. So I took her adages more as koans than cliches. “When you’re working you can not be critical,” she advised — i.e., when the juices are flowing, don’t stop them by self-censoring. “You get energy from secrets,” she said, explaining why she never reveals what she’s working on next. “Collaborations offer tutorials in reality,” she said. “In the long run, you learn something from everyone and everything.”
The latter words of wisdom are lessons offered in her forthcoming book, The Collaborative Mind. Tharp, after all, has worked with such artists as Byrne (The Catherine Wheel), Billy Joel (Moving On), and Frank Sinatra, or at least his estate (her current show, Come Fly With Me). Having recently read and reviewed Byrne’s new book Bicycle Diaries, I really liked her description of the former Talking Head as a polymath and a poet. She said that The Catherine Wheel is likely to get restaged in 2015, the 50th anniversary of her life as a creative mind.
Ordinarily, I might have found Tharp’s presentation too touchy-feely for my punk hide. And I’m sure glad that I wasn’t the woman who had to go up there and lie on the stage like an egg. But I had just come from a class where a bunch of students had been scoffing at the idea of the artist as some Romantic vestige. I thought such postmodern Barthesian concepts of the death of the author had finally been bankrupted — as Jeff Chang would say, “that’s so 9/10.” (Jeff was talking about the idea of “branding,’’ but I love that phrase and now say it every chance I get.) “Pomo no mo’” is my motto. In the age of content, creativity has been woefully commodified and needs celebrating. So I was up for exercising the creative mind.